No celebration for success of Proposition 227

Test scores up, but spirits down

WHERE’S the party?

When test scores go up, educators trumpet the good news — usually. But they’re not celebrating the success of Proposition 227, which limited bilingual education.

Taught in English, as required by Proposition 227, students with limited English skills earned higher reading and math scores on the statewide STAR exam, a Mercury News analysis concluded.

More than a quarter of public school students aren’t proficient in English. Nearly all were required to take the test, which is given in grades two through 11.

One year of rising test scores doesn’t justify a victory parade. Despite progress, scores for immigrant students remain very low. But, considering the predictions of doom when voters passed 227, this is very good news.

Children can’t learn what they can’t understand, bilingual teachers said. Teach them in English, and they’ll fail.

Children will learn English more quickly if they’re taught in English, said Ron Unz, who wrote 227. They’ll have a chance to succeed.

Tested in spring of 1999, limited-English students made more reading and math progress in elementary schools that switched from bilingual to English immersion than in schools where most students used waivers to stay in bilingual classes.

In later grades, as the better students become fluent in English and leave the limited-English category, overall scores go down. By fifth grade, bilingual students classified as limited in English test slightly better than English-immersion students.

However, when ’99 scores are compared to ’98, fifth-grade scores improved more in elementary schools that switched to English immersion than in bilingual schools. Except for fourth-grade math, there was more progress in every grade in the English immersion schools.

Oceanside Unified in Southern California eliminated bilingual classes entirely. Second-grade reading scores for limited-English students jumped from the 12th to the 23rd percentile; second-grade math scores went from the 18th to the 32nd percentile.

Schools that mainstream limited-English students — placing them in regular classes with some extra help in learning English — show the highest scores. But mainstreamed students may start out with more English fluency, so it’s not clear that’s the best strategy.

It’s a single year’s data. We’ll know more when students taught in English since kindergarten start taking the exam in second grade.

But, as Unz, says, “All the arrows are pointing in the right direction.”

If scores were going down, would it be too early to blame Proposition 227? I doubt it.

Some of the teachers and administrators quoted in our Dec. 26 story sounded like Y2K doomsayers cheated of their disaster. Bilingual ed believers say students may score well in the early grades but fail when they need to understand more complex language and ideas.

Maybe. But surely students are more likely to develop the English vocabulary to understand complex ideas if they’ve been taught in English since kindergarten.

Students taught in English made more progress in math, as well as reading, suggesting that they are understanding concepts.

Before 227, about a third of limited-English students were placed in bilingual classes. In a typical program, students received 90 percent of instruction in Spanish in kindergarten and first grade, and were taught to read in Spanish.

Because of the shortage of bilingual teachers, it was common for students to be taught to read by Spanish-speaking aides with a high school education or less.

In second, third and fourth grade, students heard more English and were supposed to transfer their Spanish reading skills to English. By middle school, most were in English-only classes.

As of last year, 12 percent of English-language learners remained in bilingual classes, 29 percent were mainstreamed and the rest were taught in English immersion classes designed for students with limited proficiency.

Some English immersion teachers taught partially in Spanish; some bilingual education programs boosted their use of English to speed students’ transition.

There was considerable confusion. Often teachers lacked English books and teaching materials. For a while, Los Angeles Unified teachers were told not to teach reading skills until their students had fully mastered English.

If nothing else, Proposition 227 did one excellent thing: Children with the greatest need for good teaching are far more likely to be taught by teachers — not by aides. That’s true for the smaller number of bilingual students, as well for the kids who are now taught in English.

It’s also easier to offer a good instructional program in English. The choice of curricula is wider.

We’d better learn to teach well in English. Among languages spoken by California students are Khmer, Toishanese, Tongan, Urdu, Pashto and Gujarati. Newly added to education department forms: Tigrinya and Albanian.

Bilingual education will survive as an option for a small number of students. But it’s not the wave of the future.

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